Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash
The day Anthony Bourdain dies, Matt is shoveling shit. He's mucking out horse stalls on Dan's land by the ocean, the summer sun blasting in through the barn door. He works here part-time as Dan's private chef, the estate only ten miles from Matt's hometown, from his regular job as head chef at Chuck's Place, but being out here feels like he's on another planet, or at least a vacation. Sometimes, after one of Dan's parties, when all the guests go home, the two of them sit on the enormous wrap-around porch and sip scotch while they stare out at the water, the rocky terrain of the Isles of Shoals jutting up toward the sky, their feet kicked up on the deck furniture as if they are somehow, despite their glaring differences, from the same universe.
Dan appreciates the way Matt mixes flavors and spices, the way he never wastes a scrap of food. Soon after he'd hired him to cook, Dan asked him to complete other tasks: Matt repainted the trim around the living room's bay windows, cleaned their thick venetian blinds with dish soap and bleach, hauled furniture into a moving van that would take it to Goodwill. Dan and his family send Matt home with food their guests haven't finished, give him seashell knickknacks to take to his seven-year-old sister, Mandy, offer him mopeds and tents and bicycles that have been sitting in the garage. Dan pays him $25 an hour, cash under the table, and Matt needs the money. Which is why he is in the horse barn, cleaning the stall of Dan's favorite horse, Lou, listening to the radio, when he hears the news.
"Anthony Bourdain found dead in his hotel room in France." Matt thinks he might drop to his knees in the dirt, the smell of manure stinging his nostrils, the piles of hay crunching around his feet, but he keeps shoveling. The newscaster finishes talking, and Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown," begins to play through the speakers, the shovel scraping against the barn floor.
Dan rushes in. "Hey," he says, combing his sparse hair across his head. "You know that food guy who travels the world, Anthony Bourdain? I just saw on the news that he killed himself. I can't believe it. That hot shot is dead." The shovel's weight seems to multiply, his forearms stiff, and Matt finally stops, his boots buried in the hay, the smell of shit and ammonia and the stench of his own sweat nauseating him, and he thinks, No. No fucking way.
Bourdain's book, Kitchen Confidential, had changed Matt's life in the way only great literature can—offering the raw truth when he didn't even know that's what he'd been seeking—the kind of undeniable authenticity that provokes you to see the world in a clearer, more luminescent light. What struck him was Bourdain's willingness to admit his failures, his mistakes, the way he was a jackass in his youth—his utter, raw honesty, and lack of pretending to be no one and nothing other than who he was. Before any of Bourdain's stardom, before the travel TV shows and the celebrity interviews, before anyone even knew who the guy was, Kitchen Confidential was passed around every kitchen Matt ever worked in—here in New Hampshire, out in San Francisco, even at an urban café he worked at in Portugal. Bourdain's words were soaked up by guys Matt had never known to read, but who nonetheless devoured the book in a matter of days. It seemed they had finally met and heard the voice of a person who understood, who was able to describe the unconventionality of their world, who divulged the details of an industry that appeals to nomads, to adrenalin junkies who get paid to pour booze into sauté pans, stand behind flames, their bodies moving and spinning as they toss ingredients, sync up with one another in time, present plates of color that look like art.
Dan stares at Matt, waits for his reaction, pulls the shovel from his hands. Matt sees the outline of Dan's face, but everything else seems to blur—the wheelbarrow piled with shavings and shit, the white clouds through the barn windows, the sound of a house door clacking closed. He looks through the vertical metal bars between stalls, wonders for a minute where Lou has gone. His head must have turned toward the yard because Dan says, "He's grazing, Matt. He's out there eating. Take a break, kid. For Christ's sake." Dan leads him out onto the grass, and hands him a glass of some kind of brown booze. "Here, drink this," he says, as Matt stares out into the vastness of the blue green sea.
Back at his apartment, Matt peels off his clothes and climbs into the shower, lets the water spray into his face and mouth, scrubs every inch of his skin. Afterward, he grabs a beer from the fridge, turns on the TV, and settles into the couch. He watches clips of Bourdain's life and travels, constantly interrupted by the disbelief of the news anchors:
"We have some stunning and heart breaking news.""Anthony Bourdain dead at 61 of apparent suicide." "A culinary explorer who was open about his various battles with drugs, including heroin."
The TV flashes to scene after scene outside of Les Halles, the restaurant Bourdain ran in New York City. The front windows are adorned with notes and flowers, crowds of people gathered together, their faces drawn and solemn.
Matt thinks about how many times he's read Kitchen Confidential, night after night of hearing Bourdain's voice throughout shifts that have made up weeks and years—as he skinned and deboned fish, roasted chickens, expedited behind the line, yelled to his sous chef and pantry guy and dish kid. Bourdain gave voices to outcasts and misfits, to people who failed at fitting into mainstream culture, or who never bothered trying to fit in at all. Who collaborated into a rhythm fueled by boozy, caffeinated drinks, worked well into the hours when most of the world slept, unwound as the morning sky seeped through darkness.
Bourdain immersed himself in everything he did—dove in with all his senses. For Matt, too, there has been no other way of being—of laboring or existing. But along with this type of devotion, this type of compulsion, there is a sphere that encircles his psyche, a sense of impending doom that turns into debilitating fear, that eventually manifests itself as inconsolable pain. The pain is what Matt understands. Like Bourdain, he dabbled in heroin, which became a habit, which became a problem. And like Bourdain, he stopped. It took an overdose in his San Francisco studio apartment, his girlfriend finding him unconscious in the bathroom; it took his mother having Mandy, whom he worried about being fatherless. But he stopped. Still, it can feel impossible to loosen the dread that grips him, to tear through the other side of it into any sort of light. Without the release of getting high, he feels the weight of darkness like a cloak draped between him and the world—the sense of something crackling inside of him, a rage that has been buried and festering for years, on the verge of exploding.
After a restless night of tossing and turning, of dreaming of Bourdain, Matt wakes up on the couch, the TV still on. It's 11:00 AM on Sunday, his day off. And he thinks instantly of Mandy.
Matt pushes the door to his mother's duplex open. The downstairs entryway is as cluttered as ever. The trash can overflows with plastic toys and lamps, end tables are covered with tennis balls and books and magazines, the carpet is stained with food and drink. "Jesus," he says, and climbs the stairs. Mandy kneels on the floor in front of the TV, her small hands resting on her thighs, fixated on Dora the Explorer. Matt pokes his head into the living room. "Learning some español?" he asks. Mandy turns her head, her freckled cheeks facing him, her red shoulder-length hair uncombed.
He crouches on the floor next to her and tickles her ribs. "Stoopppp," she laughs.
"Sleeping? You hungry?"
"I'll make you something. Hang tight," he says, then leans down and squeezes her tiny shoulders.
In the kitchen, Matt opens the fridge: a hunk of cheese he brought them from the restaurant a week ago, ketchup and mustard, some sprigs of broccoli. In the pantry, cans of beans and olives and peas. A loaf of bread. He peeks into the living room, where Mandy is still fixated on Dora. "How about one of my special grilled cheese sandwiches?"
"Sure." She smiles, showing the gap where one of her front teeth is missing.
In the pantry, he finds a loaf of bread, pulls a couple of slices from the package, and spots the unmistakable green fur speckling the dough. "Jesus Christ," he says, and tosses it in the trash. The door to the bedroom is off of the kitchen, and he opens it a crack, inhales a waft of something foul, like dirty laundry mixed with gin. His mother is in a large heap on the bed, her face turned toward the wall, her straggly hair running down her back. She's snoring. There's classical music coming from the speakers on the dresser, and her closet door is open, her clothes in a crumpled mess on the floor. He closes the door and goes back into the living room, where Mandy waits for her sandwich. He looks at the couch where she sleeps, her blankets and stuffed animals strewn about, then back at the kitchen, the sink full of dirty dishes, the empty takeout containers on the counter.
"Change of plans," he says. "We're going out."
At Chuck's Place, Matt and Mandy sit at their usual table by the window. Jenny serves brunch, pours beers and mixes Bloody Marys. She laughs at something two guys at the bar are saying. They look out of place in this college town, wearing suits and ties in this June heat, the rest of the stools taken by bearded hipsters. The sun shines brightly through the windows lining the street.
"Hey, you two," Jenny says, and places an icy Coke topped with cherries in front of Mandy. She kneels at their table, so she and Mandy are eye level, and pulls her long braid to one side of her neck. "How's my favorite girl?" she asks.
"Hungry," Mandy says. Customers shuffle in, plant themselves at tables and linger in front of the bar. The musician lugs his guitar through the lounge, up the few steps to the stage in the corner, where he'll set up in front of the two leather couches.
Jenny hands Mandy some white paper and crayons. "Why don't you draw me a picture while I get you some rolls?"
Mandy begins to draw an orange, circular shape. Matt squints through the streaming sunlight, and pulls his sunglasses down from his head, over his eyes. He smiles. "Thanks, Jenny from the block." She squeezes his forearm, and rushes off through the swinging doors of the kitchen.
"Be right back," Matt says to Mandy, and follows Jenny through the double doors, past the whirring sound of the dish machine, and he remembers Bourdain again, the way he reiterated that his most important life lessons were those he'd learned working in the dish pit as a teenager. Bourdain was right—working dish is one of the raunchiest, most thankless jobs a person can have—fishing through a plastic tub for silverware, getting sprayed with scalding hot or dirty water, the servers flying in and out of the kitchen barely scraping their dishes as they stack them messily in front of you, the chemical fumes of bleach burning your eyes as you lift and lower the lid of the machine. It teaches you what work is—what it means to show up for those who depend on you, to be an indispensable part of an operation. Despite the filthiness of the job, there is a kind of dignity to it, a satisfaction that comes from the order that repeatedly emerges from chaos, from pulling a rack of dishes out from the other side of the machine and seeing them sparkling clean, like magic.
Cam is behind the line, manning Matt's usual station, tossing chicken picatta in a pan, smoke rising to meet his face. He looks at Matt from behind the rim of his baseball hat, and reaches into the bowl of salt and pepper, sprinkles it onto ribeye and flank steaks lining the grill. "Hey, bud," Matt says.
"Miss us already?" Cam jokes, turning back to the grill, his hands moving fast, tongs flipping the meat.
"Can you throw a piece of chicken on for Mandy? And some fries?"
"Sure. Did you hear about Bourdain?" Cam turns around and pauses, his face grave. Matt glances at the door to the reach-in fridge, the picture of Bourdain taped there, one of his quotes stenciled at the bottom: "He doesn't yearn for a better, different life than the one he has—because he knows he's got a home in this one." The paper is stained with dark splotches, and it curls up on the corners from years of perpetual heat.
"Yeah. I did."
Matt trained Cam when he walked into the restaurant four years ago, a college kid looking for part-time work. He'd looked lost at first, and Matt felt bad for him, assigned him to the dish pit where he could barely keep up, the servers complaining about waiting for him to run the silverware through at the end of the night so they could roll it into napkins and finish their sidework. Matt didn't know if Cam was cut out for the business, if he'd even make it beyond a few months. And he'd been so scared of the girls, especially Jenny. Matt used to tease him about it: "I thought you were a college boy. Aren't you used to having pretty girls around?"
"Not really," he laughed, and later, Matt learned that Cam spent most of his time alone, like himself, so he decided to mentor him, to teach him how to cook, to invite him into this unique setting that would pay and feed him, offer an instant, persistent sense of family, whether he wanted it or not. One of the first things Matt did was hand him a tattered copy of Kitchen Confidential. "I don't loan this to everyone," he said, although that may not have been entirely true. "Only the ones I think will get it."
Cam had read the book in two days, as if Matt was one of his fancy professors and it was an important class assignment he'd be tested on at the end of the week. Maybe he was cut out for the business after all, Matt thought. He taught Cam the skills he needed, step by step, first on dish, and then on pantry, assembling salads and desserts, frying calamari and chicken fingers, grilling steaks and burgers, and finally, to sauté.
Now, as Matt watches him, he feels damn proud of what he helped to create—what he'd known, or rather hoped, was there inside of Cam to begin with. But Cam's eyes are clouded with worry. They seem to be asking, Are you going to be okay?
"It's still sinking in I guess," Matt says.
He thinks about Bourdain's passion for movement, for exploration. His ability to tell a story like the voice of a musician who played a song the entire audience had been waiting to hear. And Matt had listened. After culinary school, he'd backpacked through Europe, found work in a kitchen in Lisbon where he stayed for six months; hiked the Appalachian trail and cooked around a fire for groups of campers; fell in love with a girl whose skin was like velvet and followed her to San Francisco, where the two of them shacked up in a studio apartment near the French Bistro where they worked. And yes, he'd come home to press the pause button, to get clean, to be there for Mandy who was already two years old by then—to let her know she was not forgotten. But now what? He's been back in his hometown for five years, and where's he headed now?
Matt watches Cam lift the fry basket from the hot grease, inspect the crust of breaded fish, let it dip back down into the bubbling liquid. "What a fucking loss," Cam says, looking back at him, their eyes meeting before parting again.
"Thanks," Matt says, nodding as Cam grabs a breast of chicken, glazes it with the homemade barbecue sauce Mandy loves, plops it onto the grill. "I'll tell Jenny you already got my order."
Out in the lounge, the musician is singing Tom Petty's "Free Fallin" as Jenny hustles her way around the floor, her arms lined with plates of nachos and spinach artichoke dips and coconut encrusted Maine shrimp, placing the food in front of patrons, next to glasses of beer and soda. "Happy Sunday Funday," she says, as she plops the plate of chicken and fries in front of Mandy, who's on her third roll smothered in butter.
"Thanks, J," she says, and puts her drawing of the orange sun aside.
Jenny wipes barbecue sauce from her fingers onto the rag tucked into her waist band. "Sure, little one."
Mandy dips her fries in ketchup and sips her Coke. Matt tastes the seasoning on the rim of his glass, sips his Bloody Mary while staring at the TV screens behind the bar, all on mute. One is playing Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Bourdain dining at a long table on a veranda in the Philippines, surrounded by locals; the other shows an NBC commentator discussing the details of his death; the last one displays Les Halles in New York City again, people swarming and crying and hugging one another, the windows covered with photos and notes and letters, bouquet after bouquet of flowers lining the sidewalk. A shrine.
Jenny continues to weave in between tables. She watches Matt watching the TVs, and heads back toward them. "Should we have a toast tonight? Do something special?" she asks. He takes in the captions at the bottom of the screens, the flashes of Iranian desert, West Virginia coal mines, the crowded streets of Bangkok, the cameras following Bourdain's every step.
He looks at Jenny, who holds a tray of empty glasses. "Yeah, let's do that."
Mandy's plate is almost clean. "I'm full," she says.
"Good. Let's get you home." He pulls some crumpled bills from his wallet, and places them in the center of the table.
"We'll see you later then," Jenny says, as he guides Mandy out the front door and on to the street.
When they arrive back at the house, their mother's door is still closed, no sound coming from the bedroom. Mandy settles onto the living room floor with a coloring book, and Matt gets to work in the kitchen.
He fills the sink with soapy liquid, stuffs the trash with takeout containers and pulls the bag from the bin, rinses out bottles and cans to recycle. He leans the wet plates and glasses neatly on the rack, searches the cabinets and drawers for a clean dish towel. In the cabinet above the stove, he sees a group of orange prescription bottles. He pauses, and takes a deep breath as he reads the labels: Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet. He grabs a bottle of Oxy and holds it in his hand, studying it for a moment before unscrewing the cap. He opens it and gives the bottle a gentle shake, examines the white tabs clustered at the bottom. He fastens the cap back on, and shoves the bottle back into the cabinet, slams the door closed, his hand trembling.
Matt opens his mother's door again, sees she's in the same clothes she was wearing when he arrived here earlier, but this time she's facing him, her mouth open, her breathing loud and heavy. It smells like smoke and must. He closes the door, looks around the kitchen at the clean counters and shiny sink, and finds a notepad on the windowsill. He scribbles a message for his mother, and places it on the kitchen table. "Mandy," he calls. "Get your backpack. We're going on an adventure."
Matt is behind the wheel, Mandy staring out the window as they pull into Dan's long, stone driveway. "Are we going swimming? On the boat?" Mandy asks. The sun burns brightly. Sailboats bob on the water. Dan's wife lounges on the deck, reading. She looks up from her book and waves.
"No, I just have to get something from Dan before we take off." He looks down at his phone and texts Jenny: How about tomorrow night instead?
Dan walks out the front door, his expression serious, and meets them in the driveway. He leans into the driver's side window, his face close to Matt's. "I've been kind of worried about you, man."
"I'm good." Dan doesn't look convinced. "Really. There's just something I need to do. I appreciate your help."
Dan stuffs a wad of bills into Matt's hand. "Don't mention it. Be careful." Dan points to the garage. "You sure you don't want to borrow the car? Might be more comfortable," he says, eyeing Mandy. He looks at Matt's beat up Corolla, down at the rusted-out wheel wells.
"We're taking the bus," Matt answers. "But thanks. See you soon."
When Matt and Mandy arrive in Boston, they board the Chinatown to Chinatown bus. "New York City, here we come," he says, and stores Mandy's backpack in between his feet.
"How long till we get there?" she asks.
"About four hours," he says, and clutches her small knee. "You have your headphones?"
She nods, and he hands her the phone he bought her for her last birthday. "Capri Sun?" he offers, pulling a silver juice box from his bag.
"Please," she says. Matt tears the plastic from the straw and pokes it through the pouch.
Mandy settles in with her headphones and cartoons and juice box, and Matt gazes out the window. The bus pulls away from the swarms of people carrying bags and suitcases, the Chinese restaurants and bars and souvenir shops. It's one of those perfect New England summer days, even in the midst of the city's congestion. In the parks that line the Charles River, birds flitter from tree to tree, couples picnic, people lie on blankets, letting the heat soak into bodies that have been waiting for warmth all winter. Matt almost feels guilty for taking in the green blaze of the trees, the steady motion of the bus, its moving away and toward something at the same time, when Bourdain won't ever see or experience any of this again.
Somewhere outside Boston, his phone vibrates: his mom is calling. He can't bring himself to answer. Instead, he peers at the high-rise buildings that can be seen from the interstate, the tenement houses on the outskirts of the city, the clotheslines with drying garments. He's always liked the authenticity of these neighborhoods, the way the apartments are practically on top of one another, large families living in small spaces, walking to get where they are going, either hoping they are headed out, or being perfectly complacent where they are. The truth presented to the world without agenda or falsity or pretense, with no need to deny their existence, their presence, exactly as they are.
He leans his head against the grimy window. Matt hasn't told many people about his heroin habit. Cam and Jenny are the only ones back home who know, and he hopes it stays that way. He's too ashamed. He's built a persona he works hard to maintain—one his friends and ex in San Francisco would never fall for. He wonders if it's problematic, if he should be able to be more honest about his weakness, his vulnerability. Bourdain told everyone about his junk habit. He talked about it in detail on one of his episodes where he sat in a circle with folks in recovery in Western Massachusetts, told these strangers about the demon that had always lived inside of him, the one he acknowledged when he looked in the mirror but could not let go of. And he ended up dying anyway. Cam is right: What a fucking loss.If Bourdain couldn't make it, after all these years of being clean, piles of money, and the "best job in the world," then how will Matt be able to? Rather than looking at his own demons up close, he has tried to get away from them: his mother, who barely raised him, strange guys coming in and out, prompting him to escape to the houses of the neighborhood kids, endlessly scrounging because there was never enough food or money or toilet paper. His father whom he's never met.
Still, despite his not wanting to talk about his struggle, about the overdose that nearly killed him, he's never stopped missing being high. His remembrance of numbness and ecstasy and the lowering of inhibitions can never be, will never be matched. A rush that can only be compared to what it must be like for the soul to take flight from the body. The inability to feel anything but escape. Now, there will always be something missing.
That's what he told Cam and Jenny the night he confided in them. It was after work, at Jenny's studio apartment where she lives above the restaurant, out on her rooftop, the three friends smoking and drinking and staring up at the stars. He told them he was afraid of never reaching that distinct place of elevation again, of never moving fully through darkness, his fight like wading through mounds of sludge, like trying to escape quicksand that tries to swallow him again and again. That perhaps his dopamine, the chemical that heroin releases, responsible for all sensations of pleasure, has simply been depleted.
For Matt, using drugs was similar to the instant gratification of the restaurant business—the excitement and haste, the impossible balance of restlessness and structure and pleasure, the feeling of exhaustion one experiences afterward, subdued by the first inhalation of smoke or sip of booze at the end of a long shift. Once you spend years working as a chef, you're eventually unable to recognize yourself belonging anywhere else. There's no comfort in the idea of working in an office or on a construction site or a place without grease and fire and motion, sweat dripping from your brow, the sound of your co-workers yelling and moving, tongs and spatulas scraping, the music in the background inside a world of heat.
Without drugs, Matt looks for light in the small moments: like now on the bus, Mandy's eyes closed and her head resting back, her small stomach moving in and out as she breathes. The moments with Cam and Jenny during work—their urgency and laughs, their feeding and taking care of one another while at the same time satiating strangers, sending them home with full bellies and calm minds. The times after work, hanging out on the couches in the bar or upstairs at Jenny's place, listening to music and telling stories and emptying bottles of wine. That's probably where the three of them will end up tomorrow night, too, on the roof, taking in the summer breeze and night sky from up above the streets, the town lit up all around them, Cam cracking jokes to lighten the mood, Jenny breaking out an expensive champagne, their red plastic cups tapping as they pass a joint in memory of Bourdain.
His phone vibrates again. His mom.
"Hey," he answers.
"Where did you two run off to?"
"I wanted to show Mandy something." He hesitates. "We're headed to New York."
"New York City?"
"I'll explain tomorrow. But I think we should talk."
"About Mandy staying with me. Just on my days off."
"I don't like it."
"You don't have to like it."
On the other end, she lets out a long sigh. "You're overreacting."
"I don't think so. But I'll see you in the morning. We'll talk then. Love you," he says, then switches his phone to off.
Matt dozes off somewhere in Connecticut. He wakes to Mandy nudging him in the side. "Are we there?" The sky is growing darker. Awnings adorned with Chinese letters, the stairs that serve as fire escapes outside apartments, the sweet, salty smell of cuisine.
"Yup. New York. We're in the city. Are you excited to take your first subway ride?"
"Does it go underground?
"Yup. Underground, and faaasssttt," he says, tickling her ribs.
Mandy smiles. "Who did you say we are we going to see again?"
"Someone who made something of himself, but who also made a lot of extra for everyone else."
On the subway, Matt carries their packs, and finds two seats by the window. Mandy giggles as the train shakes, as they whirl underground in blackness. They climb the steps of the subway station, and emerge in Midtown Manhattan. The sun is setting, streams of pink and yellow bright against the sky. Mandy points to the graffiti on the cement, the people walking the street, a few birds in the distance.
Matt spots the restaurant: Brasserie Les Halles. It's illuminated by the lights lining the street. They snake their way through the herds of people. The windows are boarded up, as it's been permanently closed for a while now, but no one cares. As far as they are concerned, this is where Bourdain lived—where he still lives. There are flowers and notes and more flowers. Handwritten cards and letters, many open for people to read. Words telling Bourdain: we will always love you, you will be sorely missed, thank you for what you've given us. Bouquets of roses and carnations and sunflowers are tucked into the grates of the windows. Signs written with sharpies and photos are taped up, and handwritten letters are folded neatly into envelopes. More flowers along the ground, lining the corner where the sidewalk and building meet. Folks take pictures and videos, their arms linked and wrapped around one another, embracing and standing side by side. Some have come here by themselves, others in groups or pairs.
"What is all this?" Mandy asks. Matt breathes deeply as they walk closer, standing inside what feels like a movie, on a nighttime set decorated with rainbows of color. Packs of Marlboros and bottles of liqueur and cloves of garlic at their feet—offerings.
"This is family," Matt says.
Matt snaps a few pictures with his phone to bring back to Cam and Jenny and Dan: Bourdain's photos, both grinning and serious, quotes from his books scribbled on Post-its of all colors, the flowers and greenery streaming across the scene. The flocks of people coming and going, moving toward and away from one another, the chaos and calmness at once.
"Like us," he says, and holds Mandy's hand, as he guides her closer to the wall adorned with love.